By: Vee Glessner
The beginning of the story of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s (ERAU) Prescott campus starts with Prescott College, the original institution on site, going bankrupt in 1974.
When Prescott College announced its bankruptcy, students were notified at noon and had to be out by 5 p.m. on the same day.
As Prescott College locked its doors for the final time that evening, much of their campus was still intact, left behind by stressed, rushed students and staff.
Faculty office desks still contained compact mirrors and lipsticks. Biology microscopes were set up waiting for their next class, and coffee grounds waited in coffee makers, untouched, for the next four years.
Meanwhile, rumor had it that the Prescott Mortgage Trust turned away a few offers on the campus, including a request from the state of Arizona to build a minimum-security prison on the deserted property.
At the time, the facility was miles away from any urban areas, and the surrounding neighborhoods and shopping areas wouldn’t exist for years.
Over the four years that the campus remained vacant, Jack Hunt, the president of Embry-Riddle at the time and namesake for the Hunt Student Union, started looking for a Western, secondary campus for the university.
ERAU had an open admissions policy, meaning that it gave a chance to anyone who applied, but by 1978, Hunt was going to have to deny 1100 applications for sheer lack of space at the Daytona Beach campus.
“How could we turn them away?” asked John Jenkins, the only faculty member on the Prescott campus who has been here since the very beginning.
Hunt wanted another campus as a feeder school for the Daytona university. “We started off thinking this was going to be a college prep school: it was going to be a high school, and the first two years of college,” said Jenkins.
Although the idea of preparing students from 9th grade through their sophomore year of college for Daytona’s flight program seemed to be what ERAU needed at the time, by midsummer, only one student had applied for the preparatory high school and 19 for the 2-year college program.
Doubts began to surface about the future of the campus, and though administration wouldn’t give up on opening its doors in the fall of 1978, they weren’t sure the campus would last much beyond that.
In August of 1978, ERAU Prescott started enlisting students who weren’t accepted to the Daytona campus, cold-calling them with the offer of a spot in the new flight program.
The campus also recruited some students who were accepted to Daytona but wouldn’t fly for a year or two because the flight program was so full.
“We had two admissions people that started in the morning on the East Coast calling these students and saying, ‘We know that you couldn’t get into Daytona, and we know that Daytona’s flight program is full, but if you come to Prescott you’ll fly the first semester, and then after a year or two you’ll be able to transfer to Daytona,’” Jenkins said.
This was the plan: Prescott students would spend a few semesters in Arizona and transfer to Daytona as soon as possible. But when the preparatory high school part of the blueprint fell through, the school had twice as many faculty as they would need for a two-year college.
“We had two Dean of Students hired: one for the prep school and one for the college. We had two of several other positions, too,” said Jenkins.
“It was kind of a wrestling match of who was going to get the permanent position. I think at that time when the prep school fell off, that’s when Jack [Hunt] decided we wouldn’t be just a two-year school,” he explained.
Jenkins, the first person ever hired for the Prescott campus, taught math as one of eight total faculty members that first semester. All of their offices were in the building that now houses the records office.
“There was a physics teacher who also taught math, me who taught math, there were two English teachers, and four air science teachers,” said Jenkins. At the time, Aeronautical Science was the only degree program the campus offered.
The first class of 240 students lived in the dorms that remained from Prescott College, which are now classroom buildings 52, 54, and 55. Affectionately known as the slump block buildings, these original brick structures inherited from Prescott College were 11- and 12-person dorms.
“It was what was left after Prescott College vacated it. All the old slump-block buildings were all we had,” said Dean of Students Larry Stephan, who has been on staff since spring of 1979.
Students lived in what is now the center of campus, and had essentially all of their classes in the DLC, just like their predecessors from Prescott College, because ERAU didn’t have the time or finances to make any changes that first year.
The budget was minimal for academics, too. “We were building a physics lab at that time, but we didn’t have any money. Dr. McGhee would crawl around the dumpsters to find material for physics equipment,” said Jenkins.
According to him, security even called once, reporting a dumpster-diving man that claimed he was building physics experiments. Jenkins reportedly said, “Help him!”
ERAU moving in on the old Prescott College campus ruffled some feathers of Prescott High School students, who resented that their 500+ acre bonfire and keg-party zone was being claimed. “When we came, that cut their festivities out,” said Jenkins.
The relationship between the high school and ERAU got even worse as the college students started dating. Given that the first class of students was only 2% female, men trying to date women often had to look elsewhere.
“Our early students said, ‘Please don’t make us put parking pass stickers on our cars,’ because it would identify them as Embry-Riddle students,” according to Jenkins. According to him, the university had “students, mostly male, that were looking for people to date.
They were freshmen, so who were they dating? Seniors in high school. They were taking the girls away from the high school boys, and the Embry-Riddle sticker on the back of their cars said, ‘Break my windows.’”
Although the Board of Campus Activities (BCA) was years away from forming, the students found ways to have fun on campus. “Whatever we could get students to do after classes was critical because there just wasn’t much going on in the town of Prescott.,” said Stephan.
The combination of the drinking age in Arizona being only 19 at the time and very little else to do meant students spent a lot of time having parties.
To the shock of students now, most of these functions took place on campus and many were staff-chaperoned. “There were lots of drinking parties on campus. I can remember mopping up beer off the cafeteria floor,” said Jenkins.
Then-university-president Jack Hunt was said to be extremely fond of the Prescott campus, spending weeks or months at a time there.
Hunt would say that, with the “modern” telecommunication technologies of 1978, he could run the university from anywhere in the world and didn’t need to be in Daytona all the time.
He had his own apartment at the Prescott campus. “He loved to stand out by the grill and cook steaks for students,” Jenkins said. Students and faculty alike loved Hunt’s unique signature steaks: he would spread a thick layer of peanut butter on both sides before grilling.
The Prescott campus has come a long way since the early days. Although its first year was somewhat disorganized and executed with very little flourish, it was the beginning of a legacy 40 years in the making.